Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age

by Adam Crymble, University of Illinois Press, 2021, 258 pp.  
Paperback $28.00, ebook $19.95, ISBN 978-0-252-08569-7, 978-0-252-05260-6 

The field of digital history has been dominated since the early 2000s by a “technologically adept group of historians operating in an eternal present, both ignoring and being ignored by the histories of the field of which they should have been a part,” writes Adam Crymble in Technology and the Historian. Crymble aims to “challenge our professional blind spot by putting technology at the center of the field’s own narrative for the first time” (2). By providing a history of the impact of technology on historians’ work, Crymble offers common ground for a diverse and fragmented field that has been notoriously hard to define, while encouraging an “ever closer union” (10) between historians.    

Crymble’s perspective as an observer and active practitioner informs and shapes his narrative, as well as his selection of sources, which include manuscripts, archived websites, blogs, grant applications, syllabi, and interviews, in addition to published literature. His assessment of the historical exclusion among practitioners of digital history is astute. However, his account still leaves out important aspects of  the development of digital history.  His review of existing literature on the history of the field is spotty,and he focuses exclusively on English-language accounts of the field, a bias he acknowledges. His lack of attention to the contributions of library and archives workers and scholars is also troubling and reinforces, rather than challenges, some of the hierarchies and persistent structures of discrimination in the academic field of digital history.  

In the first chapter, “The Origin Myths of Computing in Historical Research,” Crymble analyzes two major traditions of computer-based scholarship that have inspired and influenced today’s scholarship in digital history. The first is quantitative social and economic history, which evolved in the 1940s and remained popular throughout the eighties. For social and labor historians in the tradition of E.P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman, computer-aided analysis of census, tax, and other records offered an important vehicle to research and write history from below. The humanities computing tradition was inspired by Father Robert Busa, a Jesuit priest, who coordinated the development of the Index Thomisticus in collaboration with IBM and other linguists. As Crymble convincingly argues, these two traditions evolved largely independently from another.  

In the second chapter, “The Archival Revisionism of Mass Digitization,” Crymble discusses the impact of the “mass digitization movement” in the US and in the UK. Crymble focuses on the development of digital and online teaching resources and online collections (which he calls “invented archives”) featuring primary sources, such as the pioneering Valley of the Shadow project. Crymble also features the rise of the participatory web, the development of online collecting projects, and the adoption of crowdsourcing by institutions. While Crymble highlights key digital history projects, his narrative downplays interpretive projects and digital infrastructures developed by libraries and archives in the US. American Memory, for example, one of the most popular early digital history projects in the United States, is only mentioned as an aside. Crymble insufficiently acknowledges any archival scholarship reflecting and arguing about the nature, representation, and preservation of digital objects, collections, and archives.2 Rather than treating archivists and librarians as invisible producers and providers in the background,3 foregrounding their perspectives would have added important voices and perspectives to his account.4

The third chapter, “Digitizing the History Classroom” discusses radical changes in pedagogy that were facilitated and inspired by digital technology. Based on an analysis of 130 syllabi, which is added as an appendix, Crymble shows how the teaching of digital history developed in four distinct waves in the past 30 years, inspiring the development of innovative student-centered teaching and learning strategies in and beyond digital history courses. By integrating digital pedagogy squarely into the history of digital history, Crymble offers inspiration and common ground for conversations among teachers and researchers about effective pedagogy in the digital age.    

In the fourth chapter, “Building the Invisible College,” Crymble draws on his experiences with developing the Programming Historian and explores the largely informal structures established for self-learning, including textbooks, workshops, THATCamp, and a proliferation of online resources. In this chapter, Crymble not only provides a helpful overview of the self-learning infrastructure, but also offers empathetic insights into the challenges of navigating a confusing network of resources for anyone who wants to learn digital tools to make history.   

In the fifth chapter, “The Rise and Fall of the Scholarly Blog,” Crymble analyzes the history of scholarly communication among historians, with a focus on blogs, which once inspired innovations and interdisciplinary exchanges, but have since declined in popularity. A more broadly conceived analysis of changes in the scholarly communications infrastructure would have helped to situate blogging in context, and a more detailed discussion of listservs as critical structures and virtual spaces facilitating conversations was amiss.    

In the final chapter, “The Digital Past and the Digital Future,” Crymble provides a thoughtful, global outlook, and calls for the adoption of more nuanced language when discussing digital history that emphasizes the activities of historians rather than the tools: research, curation, teaching, learning, and communicating (165). Crymble calls for raising awareness for the diversity of experiences and the need to establish global collaborative partnerships that are based on respect and understanding of local ecosystems. This chapter offers an inspiring framework for conversations and scholarship about the histories of digital history, to which Technology and the Historian is an important contribution.


Earlier accounts, not mentioned by Crymble, include: Robert Swierenga, “Computers and American History: The Impact of the ‘New’ Generation,” The Journal of American History 60, no. 4 (1974): 1045–70. https://doi.org/10.2307/1901012; Peter Haber, Digital Past: Geschichtswissenschaft im digitalen Zeitalter (München: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2011).
Greg Bak, “Media and the Messengers: Writings on Digital Archiving in Canada from the 1960s to the 1980s,”Archivaria 82 (December 2016): 55-81. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13581; Greg Bak, "How Soon Is Now? Writings on Digital Archiving in Canada from the 1980s to 2011," The American Archivist 79, no. 2 (2016): 283-319. https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-79.2.283.
3Trevor Owens, “Archives as a Service: From Archivist as Producer and Provider to Archivist as Facilitator and Enabler,” in: Christine Weideman and Mary Caldera (eds.) Archival Values: Essays in Honor of Mark Greene (Chicago: SAA, 2019): 229-238, preprint available at: https://doi.org/10.31229/osf.io/6m4ue.
Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” The American Archivist 74, no. 2 (2011): 600–632. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23079052

Katharina Hering, George Mason University